Where to go... in Central America
Central America is a land of captivating ancient ruins, mesmerising coastlines, wild and wonderful jungles, and enchanting wildlife. This glorious part of the world is home to seven fascinating countries that hold the promise of unforgettable travel experiences.
Located between North and South America, the seven countries of Central America - Belize, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Panama - represent nearly 10% of the world’s biodiversity, combining lush nature, rich history and plenty of eco-elegance. Travelling between these countries allows you to sample a diverse range of unique cultures, indigenous cuisine, ancient ruins and magnificent colonial architecture.
The region also boasts hundreds of miles of unblemished beaches, with stunning crystal waters and fine white sand. Along the Caribbean Coast lays the second largest coral reef on the planet, while the Pacific coast’s beaches are ideal for body-boarding and big game fishing. The interior offers an abundance of rainforest, waterfalls, rivers and towering volcanoes, and with over 400 protected areas, Central America is the home of ‘ecotourism’. Whether travelling along the Panama Canal, exploring Ancient Guatemala, roaming through the Honduran Forests, crossing Nicaragua’s Lake Managua, relaxing on the beautiful Belize beaches, monkey-spotting in Costa Rica, or admiring El Salvador’s famous archaeology, Central America is a dream destination for every traveller.
Today, we aim to help you get to know the nations of Central America a little better, and to help you decide which to visit, and which to combine.
At a glance:
- Discover a compact tropical paradise
- Enjoy outstanding snorkelling opportunities
- Visit Caracol - a fascinating Mayan site nestled in the depths of the jungle
Beautiful Belize is a compact nation that encapsulates many of Central America's quintessential attractions - the intriguing promise of Mayan ruins, remarkable wildlife, and tranquil beaches. Hikes through the jungle, unparalleled snorkelling and exploring wonderful wildlife sanctuaries are just some of the unforgettable experiences travellers can look forward to.
Among Belize's best-loved highlights is Caracol, which, in its heyday, was one of the world's most powerful Mayan cities. It reached its peak in approximately AD 650, during which time it is believed to have spanned 70 square miles. Today, you can stroll through the remains of a place that once housed more people than Belize City does today - an experience made all the more memorable by its remote jungle location and the captivating birdlife that can be spotted.
And indeed, it is perhaps wildlife that Belize really stands out for. This country is home to some glorious national parks, including Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, which is the world's only jaguar reserve. Step into the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, meanwhile, and you can encounter more than 400 bird species, not to mention several Mayan sites (Lamanai and Altun Ha).
Even more remarkable still is the wildlife under the waves. Just off the Caribbean coast lies the Belize Barrier Reef, which is the world's second largest. Veritably teeming with marine life, this destination provides exceptional snorkelling, and really cannot be missed.
At a glance:
- Discover indigenous Mayan culture
- Delve into ancient Mayan ruins
- Explore beautiful colonial cities
- Volcanic landscapes
Guatemala is a country that combines sublime natural beauty with a fantastic medley of culture. Here, you can meet indigenous Mayan people, lose yourself in bustling local markets, explore charming colonial cities and enjoy some of Central America's finest scenery. This makes it an ideal choice if you're hoping for a holiday that provides a real variety of enriching experiences.
A joy to explore on foot, colonial Antigua is one of the absolute highlights of Guatemala - and ranks among the region's most beautiful cities. Strolling along its cobbled streets will allow you to discover the world of churches, mansions, fountains and verdant gardens that gives this former capital city its unique appeal. To this day, it remains the nation's cultural capital.
Surrounded by scenic volcanoes and nestled in the nation's highland region, Lake Atitlan is another must-see, surrounded by scenic volcanoes. Not only can you bask in the glorious scenery, but you can also discover traditional Mayan villages; indigenous Mayan people make up approximately 60 per cent of the country's population. Head northwards to immerse yourself in the wonderful Chichicastenango market, where locals sell textiles, local handicrafts, and pottery, and the scents of local cooking fill the air.
Of course, the Mayan culture dates back centuries, and this country is the perfect place to pair seeing its current form with exploring ruins of the past. Tucked away in El Peten is the absolutely stunning Tikal - an ancient sprawl of temples sitting in a jungle wilderness. Its steep-sided temples climb to heights of more than 44 metres, while the wilderness slowly continues reclaiming the site. Look up and glimpse the sky through a dense rainforest canopy; keep your eyes peeled for howler monkeys and coatis darting through the ruins.
At a glance:
- Admire the scenery of Caribbean beaches and national parks
- Visit Copan, Unesco world heritage site
Located at the heart of Central America, Honduras is one of the region's finest destinations in terms of landscape. Its scenic Caribbean beaches contrast with a dramatic interior of mountains and lush rainforest, providing an abundance of material for budding photographers.
The Bay Islands, offshore of the country's coast, are a fine example of the spectacular coastal scenery, providing long stretches of white sand. Ideal for relaxation, these islands are also perfect for discovering the local marine life, offering world-class snorkelling opportunities.
Back on the mainland, a visit to Pico Bonito National Park provides a mesmerising medley of arresting views. Rivers and waterfalls threaded through lush rainforest act as a home for more than 400 species of bird and a host of other wildlife, including elusive jaguars.
Honduras also has some impressive Mayan ruins of its own. A Unesco world heritage site, particularly well regarded for its sculptures and intricately carved stelae, Copan is easily one of the world's most beautiful Mayan sites. It is awash with highlights, including the splendid Acropolis, a grand amphitheatre and the Hieroglyphic Stairway.
At a glance:
- Discover a little-explored part of the world
- Meet friendly, welcoming locals
- Explore stunning volcanic scenery
- See wonderful artistic and historic sights at Suchitoto and Joya de Ceren
In today's world, it's a rare thing to visit a destination that's truly off the beaten track. The least visited of Central America's destinations, El Salvador manages to combine a dearth of tourists with plentiful attractions, including beautiful colonial towns complete with a thriving art scene, stunning natural scenery, glorious hiking routes and, as you might expect, Mayan ruins.
El Salvador is the place to come if you want to experience Central America away from the tourist crowds; equally, it is a destination for those who want to discover one of the region's most unique countries.
An absolute must-see is Suchitoto, a charming colonial town threaded with cobblestone streets that are liberally sprinkled with art galleries; these are where you can discover the town's thriving arts scene (best experienced at weekends). Moreover, there are a host of fabulous walks that start just a stone's throw from the town, which allow you to uncover local lakes, waterfalls and caves.
The Route of the Flowers winds its way some 36 kilometres through landscapes strewn with wildflowers, coffee plantations, lakes, volcanoes and waterfalls. Dotting the route are small, traditional artisan towns, many with pre-Colombian origins that specialise in crafts such as woodwork and weaving, and restaurants and cafes serving fresh local produce and coffee.
Don't leave El Salvador without seeing the arresting Unesco world heritage site Joya de Ceren. This moving attraction is an archaeological site similar to Pompeii. In AD 600, a volcanic eruption buried a pre-Hispanic farming community, and managed to preserve architecture and artefacts just as they were in use. Indeed, this is the world's finest preserved Mesoamerican village.
At a glance:
- Enter a nature lover's paradise
- Mix activities with relaxation
- Venture into enchanting cloud forests
- Discover an incredible array of wildlife
Verdant Costa Rica is a veritable paradise for nature lovers. This lush landscape is populated with a staggering variety of wildlife - in fact, the country is one of the most biodiverse on the planet. Furthermore, over a quarter of the country is designated a national park or some kind of reserve.
The chief reasons to come to Costa Rica are to experience this impossibly rich, wild landscape of cloud forests, volcanoes and beaches up close - and, of course, the wildlife that calls them home.
The Ballena National Marine Park, for instance, is a wonderful place for spotting whales, dolphins and turtles. Turtles are a particular highlight; Costa Rica is home to six species, including the largest of all turtles - the leatherback.
Over in the Monteverde cloud forest, you can make your way through the treetops on canopy walkways, getting a closer view of the local bird and plant life. Keep your eyes peeled for the dazzling quetzal, which is endemic to this part of the world.
Indeed, birdwatching is one of Costa Rica's main draws. Close to 900 species call the country home, and provide exciting viewing opportunities across the nation, including the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge, the Palo Verde Wetlands and the Osa peninsula.
It's not just birdlife you can admire when visiting the Osa peninsula. Venture along its hiking trails and you can encounter animals such as spider monkeys, sloths, anteaters and much more.
At a glance:
- Meet indigenous people
- See the celebrated Panama Canal
- Soak up Panama City's cosmopolitan culture
- Enjoy incredible birdwatching
Best-known for the Panama Canal, Panama is a destination rich in attractions. The canal itself is an engineering marvel; other attractions take the form of inspiring landscapes, national parks, birdwatching and the chance to meet indigenous peoples.
It is also something of a cosmopolitan country, chiefly in Panama City, which provides a blend of historic and modern buildings - expect to encounter colonial buildings one moment and skyscrapers the next. What's also remarkable about Panama City is its location, with the stunning Soberania National Park just a short drive away.
This is one of the country's top birdwatching destinations - and one of its most easily accessible. More than 500 species of bird dwell here, alongside over 100 mammal species and a host of reptiles, amphibians and freshwater fish.
Panama also offers the rare opportunity to meet indigenous peoples, such as Embera in the rainforests of Chagres National Park, or the Kuna in the San Blas islands. The islands are a particular highlight; having been fiercely protected by the Kuna for years, they are refreshingly undeveloped. As well as meeting the local people here, you can snorkel and relax on pristine beaches.
At a glance:
- Explore lake islands
- Hike up volcanoes
- Discover contrasting colonial cities
Another country that lies somewhat off the beaten track is Nicaragua. With its intriguing mix of colonial cities and volcanic landscapes, it is a nation that has plenty to offer in its own right, but also works well as part of wider tours around Central America.
Part of Nicaragua's charms lie in its lack of urban development, which means that wild landscapes and, consequently, a true sense of adventure lie only steps from tourist trails. For lovers of fine scenery, the nation presents a host of exciting opportunities. The coffee plantations around Matagalpa, for example, offer exceptional views, while Ometepe Island on the vast Lake Nicaragua, Central America's largest lake, provides outstanding volcanic vistas and excellent hiking.
For the more adventurous, it's possible to hike the Mombacho Volcano, which offers spectacular views across cloud forest from its summit. What's more, this nature reserve lies just a short distance from the colonial city of Granada - another of Nicaragua's gems.
It's best to visit both the country's major colonial cities - Granada and Leon - if you can; each provides quite a different experience. Granada is a much more polished destination, offering elegant streets and charming, well-kept colonial buildings in abundance. Indeed, it is the nation's best-preserved colonial city.
Make your way to Leon, however, and the colonial buildings are beginning to show the signs of their hundreds of years of use, and public art in the form of vivid murals punctuates the streets.
Take a look at our interactive map to plan your Central American adventure, and visit our website to read more >
This article was produced in conjunction with CATA, the Tourism Promotion Agency of Central America.
- Tags: Adventure, Belize, Costa Rica, Cox & Kings Staff, Culture & History, El salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Latin America, Nicaragua, Panama, Wildlife